With Mental Health Awareness week taking place this week, it is even more important to maintain good principles of managing mental health in the workplace, and at all times hereafter. As an employer, what action could you take?

Background

Mental health is one of the biggest reasons for sickness absence in the workplace. Interestingly for the majority of our readers, following a survey of 1,000 British workers, HR professionals are the ‘most stressed’ profession with solicitors taking second place. Large workloads, tight deadlines, and dealing with emotionally challenging cases all contribute to stressful occupations.

Overall, according to the Mental Health Foundation, at least 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem each year and 1 in 5 people will take a day off work due to stress. Considering that there are numerous mental health conditions including stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and OCD to name but a few, it’s easy to see how around 70 million working days are lost each year due to mental health illness. The cost to employers is huge and this is why it’s so important to consider how mental health in the workplace can be managed.

Stress in the Workplace

Stress in the workplace is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” at work. Whilst it is a reaction and not an illness in itself, it may result in or be a trigger for other illnesses. The effects of stress can be seen in physical and mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease.

Employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees and to provide them with a safe place of work and a safe system of working. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.

Employers can take precautions by carrying out stress risk assessments and operate in accordance with the standards published by the Health and Safety Executive. These include considerations of workload, work environment, support functions, organisational change and relationships in the workplace. These standards are intended to help employers demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment. Further information can be found at: www.hse.gov.uk/stress/index.htm.

Prevention and Support

Employers are not expected to be experts in mental health but there is an expectation that they recognise changes in their employees’ behaviour. There are a number of informal methods of preventing and supporting mental health in the workplace, including embracing initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week. Simply encouraging staff to talk is a step forward and you can promote this in the workplace with posters. Putting mental health ‘champions’ in place, allocating quiet working spaces or time-out zones or having an allocated drop-in sessions for employees to talk and be listened to. Other methods of support include:

  • encouraging staff to develop a wellness action plan
  • training for managers to know how to support, recognise and manage mental health problems
  • a mental health ‘hotline’ or other Employee Assistance Programme
  • hosting well-being events
  • providing free counselling
  • start a well-being newsletter

Regular catch ups also give staff chance to talk to their managers with any concerns they have in the workplace and managers will need to make sure they follow up on any issues raised. Look out for early warning signs and signs of ‘invisible’ conditions such as anxiety, OCD and depression which might not reveal themselves until a staff member is pushed to their limits.

Most importantly, staff should know who and where they can go to for support if they need it. Break the taboo and get people talking about mental health awareness so that staff can feel confident to approach somebody with their concerns.

Managing Mental Health and Performance

There may be occasions when an employee with mental health issues is undergoing a performance management process, or is otherwise party to misconduct proceedings or a redundancy exercise. These situations should be handled with care to ensure fair and due process, and managers will often need support when dealing with them. Some things are simply not within a manager’s comfort zone, so reaching out in these situations is critical for all parties. Support should be offered to both the manager and the employee, together with the consideration of whether there are any reasonable adjustments that can and should be made to the process, including:

  • allowing a companion to accompany the employee (such as a family member or friend)
  • changing the location of any meetings to a comfortable location for the employee or even hold the meeting over the phone
  • providing extra time for breaks
  • allowing the employee to provide written representations instead of attending what could be considered to be a very formal and intimidating meeting

Employers should also consider the need to obtain medical advice, whether generally or in relation to the level of support that may be required to be able to continue through the process in a fair way, and at all times in accordance with existing absence management procedures. How can you support the employee back to work? Is a phased return to work plan required? What additional support can be provided before or upon a return to work? Are changes to the role required? What methods can be adopted to remove the ‘stress’ from the situation. What review mechanisms should be put in place?

Mental Health as a Disability

Under the Equality Act 2010, a disability is described as “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities”.

There is a long term effect if:

  • it has lasted at least 12 months;
  • the period for which it lasts is likely to be 12 months; or
  • it is likely to last for the rest of the life of the person affected.

Keep in mind therefore that the illness doesn’t have already had to have lasted 12 months, but simply have the potential to do so.

Normal day-to-day activities include participation in their professional life and so the definition is wide enough to include poor performance at work because of a mental health condition. It is therefore hugely important to properly manage mental health in the workplace to avoid the risk of claims, including unfair dismissal and a range of disability discrimination complaints.